Unfortunately this shot doesn't capture the timestamps for these entries, but by my RSS reader's count that's 18 posts from 11 sources, all bubbling up within minutes of each other (and I probably could have found more). "Blanket coverage" seems insufficient.
Editor's Note: This article was originally commissioned by a major video game news outlet, then killed upon receipt because an editor thought it would "cause too many problems." I present it here as it was presented to them.
This April, a group of a few dozen game journalists flew off to a beautiful Hawaiian resort for a three-day trip. The occasion wasn't some sort of industry-wide retreat or group vacation, but rather a Capcom game preview extravaganza known as Captivate. There, these select opinion-makers of the game industry enjoyed some of the best accommodations Hawaii had to offer, many of them on Capcom's dime.
Ostensibly, the purpose of these kinds of events -- known as junkets in the industry -- is to write up early access previews of upcoming games and interact with the people who make them. But the fringe benefits of these publisher-sponsored junkets -- which can range anywhere from free food and drink to flights and hotel stays to exclusive trips in military fighter jets and Zero-G suborbital planes -- can draw controversy for their effect on the way games are covered.
"You can argue that you can continue to be impartial in that situation, but the company paid for your plane ticket and hotel room in an island paradise," said Ars Technica Gaming Editor Ben Kuchera, who does not accept paid travel from publishers. "They are paying for your food and your drinks. It is not the best circumstance for a sober, measured look at these games."
Of course, the journalists that accept these trips insist that the all-expenses-paid trappings are beside the point. "I won't lie, Hawaii was nice," said Destructoid editor-in-chief Nick Chester, who let Capcom pay for his trip to Captivate. "I'd never been before! But really, I was there to do work, and I'd say I spent the bulk of the time watching presentations, playing games, and speaking with developers."
For Chester, and many other journalists I spoke to that accept paid travel from game publishers, taking a free trip to a junket is the best way for them to inform their readers. "There's simply no way we could have been able to cover the event if Capcom hadn't covered the costs," Chester said. "We're in the business of delivering to our readers the information that they want -- it's why they keep coming back for more. [If we hadn't attended] our coverage would have suffered greatly, and our readers would have been forced to look elsewhere."
Those that attend junkets also stress that a free trip doesn't guarantee a good review for the games on display there. "I'm about to give Lost Planet 2 a 5/10 rating because it was a horrible experience," said Maxim Gaming Editor Gerasimos Manolatos, who had Capcom pay for his trip to Captivate. "It wouldn't have made a difference to me if it was the grandest party of all-time ... it could have taken place in my living room." [Editor's Note: After this story first ran on The Game Beat, Nick Chester wrote in to note that he gave Lost Planet 2 a 4/10]
Which begs the question, why do publishers pay for these junkets in the first place? For Capcom Senior PR Manager Melody Pfeiffer, the trips are more about securing a journalist's attention than their opinion. "Our annual event, Captivate, was first inspired by the idea of creating a full 'Capcom Experience' where press would have three days to spend playing our upcoming lineup, getting to know our producers and discussing our games with their creators," she said. "We didn’t tell them that in order to be invited, they have to write about everything they saw and in a positive way. This is up to them to decide, we just gave them the opportunity to do it."
But many journalists think there's more to a junket than getting journalists' attention. "Let's be logical here: no company gives you money for nothing," Kuchera said. "If your site has been given thousands of dollars worth of flights and amenities, there is an expectation there. It's not as sinister as a straight bribe, but PR will always position itself to try to get the best coverage of as many of their games as possible, and they spend money to do that."
And some journalists think that's money that could be better spent elsewhere. "Keep in mind, these events are very expensive," said Chris Grant, Editor-in-Chief of Joystiq, which has an editorial policy against taking paid trips from publishers. "The money that a company uses to finance the travel and, to some degree, vacations of a few dozen of the country's gaming press is money that, ultimately, is coming out of consumer's pockets."
While many outlets somehow disclose when coverage comes as a result of a publisher-funded junket, Grant worries that gamers don't really understand what goes into the game previews they read. "From what I can tell... readers do not realize the nature and frequency of events like these and, even more disappointingly, most of them don't seem to care," he said. "It's not a matter of whether or not I trust my writers to remain impartial in the face of gifts and free trips; it's more a matter of whether readers can continue to place their trust in us if they know we accept those things."
Some journalists, though, argue that their readers' trust isn't such a fragile thing. "We are an enthusiast press, and as such, we work closely with publishers and developers," said Tom Chick, a freelancer who writes for Syfy's Fidgit gaming blog. "It's important that readers realize that, but it's also important that they know they can trust some of us. I spent two days in Hawaii looking at Capcom's upcoming game line-up. I really like Lost Planet 2. There is no causation between the former and the latter. That's where my reputation hopefully comes into play."
In the end, most who write about games acknowledge that managing junkets is a balancing act. "The fact is, we, the press, are there as guests," said GamingNexus Staff Writer Jeremy Duff. "And it is up to each of us individually to walk fine line of being a gracious guest while still maintaining our responsibility to our readers."
As I begin writing this, Starcraft II has been out for over a day and has exactly one review listed on GameRankings.
This is practically unprecedented for a major, modern video game release. Mass Effect 2 had 27 online reviews listed on GameRankings by its Jan. 26 release date. Curious Super Mario Galaxy 2 shoppers had at least 15 different opinions guiding them on launch day. Even reclusive Rockstar Games allowed 11 reviews of Red Dead Redemption to leak out in time for that game's release. You get the idea.
Of course, the lack of release day reviews for the latest Starcraft was by design on Blizzard's part. While journalists have had access to the multiplayer beta since February, they only got access to the final retail build of the single-player campaign when the battle.net servers were turned on for consumers yesterday. Blizzard isn't officially commenting on the move, but Eurogamer's on-background sources have them comfortable enough to say "the new Battle.net service and its online features are so integral to the game that it would be both impractical and undesirable for press to review it before servers go live." Of course that doesn't fully explain why journalists couldn't have access to those servers a little earlier than consumers, but it is what it is.
As it stands, dozens of critics are doubtless currently dashing through their copies of Starcraft II, rushing to put together some coherent impressions before the launch-window attention dries up (and before competitors get their reviews into the vacuum). Quite a few sites felt the need to specifically mention the lack of early review access, perhaps none more amusingly than Rock Paper Shotgun. IGN was almost apologetic about it: "The goal is to get you a review as quickly as possible, but we'll also be taking to time to see all there is to see in StarCraft II. Because of that, there's no specific date when the review might show up. We are working on it, though, so don't think we've forgotten about what's arguably the biggest game of the year."
It seems obvious why this isn't an ideal state of affairs for everyone involved. Gamers who want to buy the game on release day will essentially be going in blind, basing their purchase decisions on previews and a prequel that was released 11 years ago. Blizzard will be losing out on media attention and consumer mindshare that launch day reviews generate. And critics, of course, lose out on all the Google traffic surrounding the game's launch, which will likely never be higher than it is on release day.
But maybe these negatives aren't really negatives. After all, reviews obviously aren't very important to the more than 800,000 people that pre-ordered the game without reading a single "10 out of 10." And analysts are already predicting the game will sell 7 million units over its lifetime, suggesting Blizzard won't be paying any significant long term price for the small dip in release day media attention. As for the critics... well, they kind of get the short end of the stick here, don't they?
When you think about it, it's kind of surprising that publishers let reviewers have early access to any big name releases. Starcraft II's impressive pre-order numbers seem to show that, absent any first day reviews, consumers are comfortable coming out in droves for a game (and a developer) that has a sufficiently impressive pedigree.
Now think about how the equation changes if reviews are available on day one. If the reviews are good (as they almost always are for such big-franchise releases), it will just confirm consumers' expectations and probably not lead to a significant bump in launch day sales. But if the reviews are somehow worse than expected, potential first-day purchasers might hesitate, holding their money until they get confirmation from a friend, or even moving on to another game entirely.
For smaller games, the risk of bad early reviews is worth the opportunity to capture more media attention and consumer mindshare. But for the biggest titles, where consumer mindshare is already saturated by release day, surely the potential risks outweigh the potential rewards.
There's a reason film studios increasingly don't allow early press screenings of some of their most heavily marketed movies -- they want to buy their way into a decent opening weekend before the critical world (and word of mouth) potentially breaks the marketing bubble they've created. I'm increasingly afraid that Starcraft II's review-free launch will prove that the same strategy now makes sense for the video game market as well.